The struggle to find new language for fucking

Unpacking the romance novel in 2015

Reading romance novels used to be something you did under the covers in the dark, skipping ahead to the dirty bits and hoping no one could hear you slowly grinding away against yourself. Sure, grandma happily read her Harlequins in her chair in the living room, but the sweet romance those book covers promised were covering up page after page of throbbing, pulsing, driving. And then it was 2011, and everyone—like, everyone—was reading "Fifty Shades of Grey" out in the open, getting hot, bothered, and off, right there in front of everyone at the airport and on the light rail. For all the controversy about its bad writing, bad BDSM, and bad attitude about consent, one thing was certain: People were reading it and talking about it, and those people were largely women.

That might have been news for people not already reading romance, but the genre has long dominated popular fiction sales—bringing in more than a billion dollars a year—and 82 percent of its readers are women. Still, the National Book Festival in D.C. consigned its romance writers to a few evening hours—and this was just the first year romance made it on its roster at all—but in Baltimore, the genre gets its showcase, and its due.

"Romance is bolstering the publishing industry right now," Maryland Romance Writers Association President Christi Barth says. "We bring in considerably more money than genres below us."

In its fifth year, the Maryland Romance Writers Stage offers three full days of readings by local and nationally known writers, how-to-write and how-to-sell workshops, and discussions about the craft of writing and reading romance.

"We're a business like everyone else," Barth notes. "If there are seven vampire books out, you can't get a publisher to publish an eighth. But you can do it as a self-publisher."

Does that mean the market—and the Maryland Romance Writers' Stage—is flooded, wet with subpar writing pushed out to meet the vanity needs of their writers? Not at all, she says. "They are still good books, even if the market couldn't find them a publisher." Sales numbers show that romance fiction is finding a mass readership, and it just keeps growing. "People may not admit it," Barth says, "but they're out there reading it."

In fact, the move to self-publishing is only growing the market as more and more authors can find ways in the game. Though the trend is less than 10 years old, it has already opened doors for many new writers, who call into question some of the stereotypes surrounding the genre.

There are the book covers, with their bare-chested alpha males and fainting women in need of rescue. There are formulaic plots—woman needs love, she finds a rough-around-the-edges man, she smooths those edges down, and he sweeps her off into the sunset, a bodice or two ripped in the meantime, if we're lucky. And there's the "sexy" language, the heaving bosoms and throbbing members, the sad struggle to find new language for fucking. It might get us hot, but we're certainly not going to admit it, as if getting turned on requires greater sophistication than can ever be offered up by romance writers.

But contemporary romance is a whole different—and very serious—ballgame. Lea Nolan is a Maryland-based best-selling author and organizer of this year's stage at the book festival. She argues that these outdated notions show a lack of understanding of the real girth of the genre. "Romance encompasses so many different kinds of stories and so many different levels of intricacy and complexity and sophistication."

All genres have their basic, formulaic books, what Nolan calls "the simple sugars, easy to digest." But romance writers are also writing complicated and thoughtful stories that deal with much more complex issues.

"Someone who thinks it's all junk doesn't realize how broad and deep romances can get," Nolan says.

Writer Bernice Layton, who will be a featured writer in the Black Writer's Guild of Maryland tent on Sunday, reads and writes romances explicitly because "it is serious."

"Today's romances," she says, "have messages. They are about today's issues—home, work, family." And those issues are complicated by the messy, raunchy stuff of life. As Layton says, "characters have baggage." In romance, you'll find people dealing with a whole range of issues facing people of all backgrounds. "Years ago," Layton notes by way of example, "I don't remember a character with a disability. Now, that's normal in romance fiction."

Layton also uses her writing to work through complicated issues of race and identity. She writes African-American heroes and heroines, but places them in the multicultural realities she sees in her life, with characters of all backgrounds peopling the workplaces, churches, homes, coffee shops, and city streets of her novels. "It's not an African-American book I'm writing," she says, but one that recognizes the diversity of today's world.

Nolan's writing takes on serious issues as well. She says her novels "deal with important social issues," often by way of back-story issues in the lives of characters. "Domestic violence, disability, illness, PTSD—everything," Nolan says it's all in romance. The genre reflects those complexities by looking at how individuals with all the baggage of life meet each other and work through those issues in relationships with other people.

Romance might deal with real-world issues, but it also offers an escape—and that's serious business too. Laura Kaye, a New York Times and USA Today best-selling author, writes romances because "it's an incredibly hopeful genre, it's a lot of fun."

Kaye turned to writing after a traumatic brain injury in 2008, and she says the "creative process of bringing something to life that never before existed" has been transformative. She is a full-time writer, eight hours a day, every day, and finds joy in producing books that bring escape and fun to readers like herself.

Author Eliza Knight says she's gotten plenty of notes from readers thanking her for helping them through tough times by offering them that escape. Barth puts it quite simply: "Our books transport you, take you to a different place. Our books make people happy." Finding an escape from the grind of life is its own kind of serious business.

So why all the hate? It might have something to do with who is reading it. Remember that 82 percent of its readers are women. Nolan argues that's enough to give romance a bad name. "Romance gets a bad rap because it's written for women by women," she says.

Kaye agrees: "It's written by women, for women, so we dismiss it." It is a pithy response, but it is one that makes sense in a society that still pays women less than men for doing the same job and can only just barely imagine a woman president.

Romance fiction has, to be fair, earned some of this approbation, though. The old archetypical romance featured helpless women being absconded by men, and she was hardly a feminist. Nolan describes today's heroines as very different, however. "She's spunky, she speaks her mind, she knows what she wants, she doesn't take crap, she charts her own destiny."

And men may be "alphas," but that hard exteriors masks for more emotionally complicated men who have their own work to do to overcome extreme pasts. There might still be some of those helpless women from the old days, but overwhelmingly romance has gone somewhere else, and women are on top—a still-unusual position in our culture, even if we like it that way in the bedroom.

Still, romance fiction's formula ultimately insists that love is indeed what conquers all. Rare is the romance that does not have a happy ending, with happiness defined as a monogamous forever-match. This as the ultimate goal, particularly for women, is hardly breaking new feminist ground, even if the women aiming for it are full of sass.

But perhaps asking whether or not the genre is feminist, good for women, or good for the rest of us is asking the wrong questions. In her 1984 study "Reading the Romance," Janice Radway argued that romance novels are just as much a product of readers as writers and publishers.

It is in the interaction between the reader and the text that meaning is made, and there are as many ways of reading as there are readers. What for one reader is a formulaic story of love winning the day may be for another reader a description of the limitations of the day itself. Take the great controversy stirred by "Fifty Shades of Grey." Some saw the novel as a guide for abusers, others an entry to thinking and talking a bit openly about BDSM, and still others an exemplar for the death of literate writing—just a few examples of the range of responses to the very same book.

Kaye loves meeting readers for just this reason: "Writers are only one-half of an equation of a book. Readers bring it to life." The two will have plenty of time to meet and argue about what it all means down at the harbor this weekend.

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